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Seeking Lithuania’s Past in Belarus

On each of our trips to Vilnius, my husband Paul and I make it a point to leave Old Town, where we always base ourselves and spend most of our time, to stroll along Gediminas Prospect in New Town. It’s a one-mile walk along a route lined with cafes and shops,  made longer by our many stops to eat and shop. Our goal, however, is  Lithuania’s  Parliament  at  the  end  of Gediminas Prospect. For us it’s a pilgrimage to honor those who died,  were  shot  or  crushed  beneath  Soviet tanks  at the TV Tower in January 1991,  almost a year after Lithuania declared its independence from the USSR.

 

Map Of the area visited by the author.
Map Of the area visited by the author.

On  one  side  of the  modern  Parliament  building are  the  remnants  of the  1991  barricades,  now  enclosed in glass to protect them.  But on the opposite side,  we noticed something new on  our last  trip  in July 2013. A timeline of Lithuania’s history has been erected there, graphically displaying the  extent of Lithuania’s territory at various points in its  thousand  years  of documented history.

What  most  riveted  our  attention was  the  display  labeled  “1392  to 1430.”  It  showed  Lithuania,  then called the Grand  Duchy of Lithuania, sprawled across much of Eastern Europe,  encompassing  present-day Lithuania as well as parts of Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia and all of Belarus. The Grand Duchy was the largest state in Europe at the time.

The fact that the Grand Duchy included Belarus interested us the most, since we had planned a three-day excursion there as part of our next trip to  Lithuania.  We decided to search for Lithuania’s medieval and Renaissance past while in  Belarus, visiting castles  associated  with  Lithuania’s grand dukes,  the Lithuanian nobility, or both.

It’s a drive of 105 miles from Vilnius  to  historic  Grodno  in western Belarus. The roads are good, but delays  at  the  Lithuanian-Belarusian border  can  stretch  into  hours.  We were not lucky; our Belarusian driver  told  us  the  Lithuanians  were “miffed” at the Belarusians—or vice-versa—so  our  border  crossing took almost three hours.

LEFT, TOP: The Old Grodno Castle (detail of a 16th century engraving by Braun and Hogenberg).  ABOVE: Statue of Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas in between the Old and New Castles of Grodno.

Grodno / Hrodna / Gardinas

Grodno, which the Belarusians call Hrodna,  and  the  Lithuanians  Gardinas, is located on the Neman (Ne­munas)  River,  just  eighteen  miles from  today’s  Lithuanian  border. Grodno began as a fortified trading center,  possibly  as  early as  the  late tenth century. By the middle of the thirteenth century, it had come under the control of Lithuanians, notably Mindaugas (c. 1200-1263), Lithuania’s first and only crowned king, who  is  credited with  founding  the Lithuanian  state.  Vytautas,  grand duke at the time of Lithuania’s greatest territorial extent in the early fifteenth century, stayed here while preparing  for  the  Battle  of Žalgiris/ Griinwald (1410), which successfully and decisively eliminated the threat to  Lithuanian  territories  from  the Teutonic Knights.

Front entrance to New Grodno Castle.
  Front entrance to New Grodno Castle.

Stephen Bathory,  Grand Duke of Lithuania as well as King of Poland (and Prince of Transylvania to boot), made Grodno his royal residence in the  late  sixteenth  century.  A  later grand  duke  and  king,  Stanislaw  II August, abdicated here in 1795 after the  Third  Partition  of the  Polish-Lithuanian  Commonwealth,  when Russia swallowed up  Lithuania.  He was the last king and grand duke of the  Commonwealth.

What’s left at Grodno are two castles  high  above  the  river,  linked by an  arched  stone  bridge.  The  one called Old Grodno  Castle was built by  Grand  Duke  Vytautas  around 1390-1400. It was rebuilt in Renaissance style by Stephen Bathory almost two hundred years later. The castle’s five  Gothic  towers  are  gone,  but  a good  stretch  of stone  wall,  a  nowdry  moat  and  a  two-story  Prince’s Palace are left.  The Old  Castle suffered greatly during the Russo-Polish War  of 1654-1667  (also  called  the Thirteen Years’ War)  and the Great Northern War with Sweden in 1700-1721.

After a major fire in 1735, the New Grodno  Castle  was  built just  steps away from the Old Castle and joined to it by a stone bridge. This new castle was  home  to  two  rulers, August III  (1696-1763),  who  made  it  his summer residence,  and Stanislaw II August  (1732-1798),  who  abdicated here.  Because  of the  devastation of World War Two,  little  is  left  of the original eighteenth century palace, but it’s since been reconstructed as a grand neoclassical structure.

Both castles now serve as museums. The  Old  Castle  houses  a small  archaeology and folk art collection plus very large natural history and history museums.  The New Castle disp lays period furnished rooms and art. We were told by a castle administrator of plans to restore the Old Grodno Castle to look the way it did during the Renaissance reign of Stephen Bathory.

Interior courtyard of Lida Castle, now under reconstruction.
Interior courtyard of Lida Castle, now under reconstruction.

Throughout most of the life of the Grand  Duchy,  Grodno was  its  second largest and most important city after  Vilnius.  Grand  dukes  often resided here, important foreign visitors were  received  here,  and  this  is where the Seimas (Parliament of the Polish-Lithuanian  Commonwealth) often convened.

Lida / Lyda

Our  next  stop  was  Lida  Castle (Lyda or Lydos pilis in Lithuanian), seventy-one miles northeast of Grodno.  Lida was  one  of several  castles built in the early fourteenth century by Grand Duke Gediminas, who is also credited with founding the city of Vilnius.  He  built  the  castles  to defend against the Teutonic Knights, who warred against the Lithuanians in a “crusade,” ostensibly to convert the pagan Lithuanians to Christianity,  but actually to  acquire territory for themselves.

An interesting aside: in the fifteenth century, Grand Duke Vytautas gave Lida Castle to Khan Tokhtamysh, his military ally, who was a descendent of Genghis Khan’s eldest grandson. Tokhtamysh  had  revolted  against Timur  (or  Tamerlane),  one  of the greatest of the Mongolian conquerors, and needed a safe refuge.

From the outside,  the brick-faced castle  is  imposing  and  seemingly impregnable, with two tall towers at its northwest and southeast corners. Yet the Teutonic Knights  managed to capture it several times during the fourteenth century, as did the Crimean  Tatars  in  1506;  the  Russians  in 1659, during the Russo-Polish War; and the Swedes in the early eighteenth century, during the Great Northern War, when they blew up the castle’s towers.

 Ruins of Navahrudak Castle
Ruins of Navahrudak Castle

An entire settlement with barracks, stables  and wells  once  stood  inside the large, 264 foot square, courtyard, which is now being restored and will soon house a restaurant and gift shops in the reconstructed buildings. In the meantime, visitors can walk along the wooden  walkways  high  along  the castle’s  inner wall  and  climb  inside one of its towers.

 

Courtyard of Mir Castle
Courtyard of Mir Castle

Navahrudak /  Naugardukas

It’s only a twenty-seven mile drive southeast  of Lida  to  Navahrudak, which Lithuanians call Naugardukas. It’s hard to imagine this castle’s historic importance from what’s left. On one  of the  highest  hills  in  Belarus (1,066  feet),  high  above  the city of Navahrudak, stand two ruined towers, all that remains of one of the most important strongholds of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and once the center of its growing empire.

Lithuanian  King Mindaugas  may have been crowned here in 1253 and possibly  buried  here  or  nearby  in 1263. After repeated attacks  by the Teutonic  Knights  throughout  the fourteenth  century  (1314,  1321, 1341,1390,1394), Grand Duke Vytautas  added  four  stone  towers  to the  castle.  Three more were  built  a century later to strengthen its defenses,  but this didn’t stop the sieges of the Crimean Tatars (1505), Russians (1654-1657) and Swedes (1706), not to mention the devastation of twentieth century wars and occupations. The  two  towers  are  the  sole  survivors of750 years of turbulent history.

Mir /  Myras / Myrius

Thirty-two  miles  southeast  of the sad, scanty ruins of Navahrudak stands  the  glorious  palace  of Mir (Lithuanians  call  it  Myras  or  My­ rius). The land that Mir Castle stands on  once  belonged  to  Grand  Duke Vytautas, who gave it to his brother Žygimantas Kęstutaitis, who himself became grand duke in  1432.  In the early sixteenth  century,  Mir  passed to Yuri Ilyinich, a local magnate, who built the first castle here,  a fortress­ like structure of thick walls,  towers, drawbridge  and  moat.  Since  his grandson  died  childless,  in  1568- 1569 the castle passed into the hands of the famous  and prolific Radvila- Radziwitt family.

The Radvilas,  a family of Lithuanian origin, rose to prominence and power in the fourteenth century, acquiring land and properties in Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. When they acquired Mir by inheritance,  they  transformed  it  from  a fortress  into  a splendid Renaissance palace with  an  Italian-style  garden and an artificial lake. This was to be their  family  home  for  almost  250 years, through the Russo-Polish War of the mid-seventeenth century,  the Great Northern War of the early eighteenth century,  the Kosciuška (Kosciuszko)  Uprising  of  1794  and  the Franco-Russian  War  of  the  early nineteenth century, until finally abandoned in  1813.

Couple in period costume visiting Nesvizh Castle (she’s from the Czech Republic, he’s from Kuwait)
Couple in period costume visiting Nesvizh Castle (she’s from
the Czech Republic, he’s from
Kuwait)

In  1891,  the ruined property was sold to the Svyatopolk-Mirsky family,  which  owned many of the businesses in the town of Mir. They owned Mir Palace until 1939. Restoration began in  1982, and it was added to the  prestigious  UNESCO  World Heritage List in 2000.

Mir  is  a  magnificent  palace  with five towers overlooking a small quadrangular courtyard; one tower serves as the entry to the palace. The faęade is a blend of red brick interspersed with white sandstone, a colorful and beautiful mix. The palace rooms are furnished  to  represent  different  periods in the castle’s history: medieval armor, a Gothic-era kitchen, mannequins in sixteenth century dress, Renaissance tapestries and coffered ceilings, and a nineteenth century study. They all blend well to give an idea of how the Radvilas, their predecessors and their successors lived.

Nesvizh  /  Nesvyžius

Twenty-one miles southeast of Mir lies another Radvila palace, Nesvizh (Lithuanians call it Nesvyžius),  that first  belonged  to  Lithuanian  grand dukes. A town called Nesvizh is documented in 1223, but it was only in the sixteenth  century that it passed to the Radvilas.  In  1582, Mikalojus Kristupas  Radvila  began  to  build  a Renaissance-style palace on top of the preexisting  medieval  castle.  When this  palace  was  damaged  in  1706, during the Great Northern War, the family  rebuilt  it  in  Baroque  style, creating a grand complex of several buildings  surrounding a large inner courtyard. An English-style park was added in the  1880s.

Entrance to Nesvizh Castle
Entrance to Nesvizh Castle

Entry into Nesvizh is made across a  stone  bridge,  over  a  moat  and through  an  impressive  neoclassical gatehouse. From the courtyard with its  well,  visitors  can  explore  stately rooms  full  of crystal  chandeliers, wood-paneled rooms with walls hung with portraits of generations of Radvilas, heavy Renaissance wooden furniture  and  the  wonderful  tall  tiled stoves  used to warm rooms  in wintertime. One room houses a collection of dolls dressed richly in period costume  to  give  visitors  an  idea  of what one wore while living in these elegant spaces.

A short walk from the palace,  the Corpus  Christi  Church  houses  the coffins of seventy-two Radvilas. Built in  the  late  sixteenth  century,  this church is considered one of the earliest,  if not  the  earliest,  Baroque buildings in Eastern Europe.  Nesvizh  was  added  to  the  UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005.

 Courtyard of Nesvizh Castle.
 Courtyard of Nesvizh Castle.

Before visiting our seventh and last castle in Belarus, we detoured sixtytwo miles to overnight in Minsk, the capital  of Belarus.  Sometimes  described  in  guidebooks  as  grim,  we found it anything but. As on a previous trip to Minsk six years ago, we enjoyed strolling the main boulevard, Nezavisimosti  Avenue,  lined  with monumental  Soviet-era  buildings, with  plenty of cafes  along  the  way for snacks and people-watching. If you have the time, it’s worthwhile spending  at  least  two  or  three  nights  in Minsk.

Krevo /  Krewo / Kriavas

On  our  way  back  to  Vilnius,  we stopped  at  Krevo  Castle  (forty-two miles northwest of Minsk) located in a  village  just  off the  main  MinskVilnius road. Lithuanians call it Kriavas. This, like Navahrudak Castle, is a sad  ruin  of crumbling towers  and walls; although there’s much more left than at Navahrudak.

Krevo  was  a  fortified  stone  castle built in the early fourteenth century by Grand Duke Gediminas and occupied by him and his son Algirdas, one of Gediminas’s seven sons, three of whom became grand dukes.  Kęstutis, one of the three, was imprisoned  and  probably  murdered  in  this castle in  1382 by orders of his nephew, Jogaila. Grand Duke Vytautas was also imprisoned here by Jogaila,  but escaped after he traded places with a maid servant and sneaked out of the castle wearing her clothes.

Krevo  Castle is  best known as the place where  the  Union  of Krevo  or Krewo (Kriavo sutartis) was signed in 1385,  establishing  a  dynastic  union between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the  Kingdom of Poland.  In 1386,  Jogaila was  baptized  in  Krakow, married Queen Jadwiga of Poland  and was  crowned  King  of Poland as Wiadyslaw II Jagietto. He also retained his  title  of Grand  Duke  of Lithuania. Sacked by Crimean Tatars early in the sixteenth century, the castle slowly crumbled over the next four centuries  until World War One put it on the front between Russian and German  forces,  reducing  it  to  the ruins you see today.

Crumbling walls of Krevo Castle.
 Crumbling walls of Krevo Castle.

It was here in Krevo, standing in a vast trapezoidal space now overgrown with waist-high grass and surrounded by dilapidated castle walls, that we ended  our  too-brief three-day foray into Lithuania’s days of glory. A lone horse standing outside a broken-down barn  beside  the  ruins  followed  our movements with curiosity as we stumbled over grass-covered hillocks inside Krevo  Castle’s  courtyard  trying  to imagine how it once looked.